'Scoreboard, Baby'

August 20, 2010

College football is so notorious a breeding ground for controversy that it's difficult even to say what constitutes a scandal anymore. But a series of articles digging into the story behind the University of Washington's 2000 football season — which culminated in a Rose Bowl victory — managed not only to raise eyebrows, but to drop jaws, when they first ran in The Seattle Times in 2008.

The articles' authors, investigative reporter Ken Armstrong and staff reporter Nick Perry, found that football players on Washington's team for the 2000 season were under investigation in connection with a variety of crimes, including domestic violence, rape, robbery, and shooting a drug dealer. But the wheels of justice turned slowly — where they turned at all — and none of the accused were prevented from playing football, nor prosecuted until well after the season's end.

In their new book, Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity (University of Nebraska Press), Armstrong and Perry update and expand the tale first brought to light in their 2008 articles. Scoreboard, Baby looks at how the actions of players, coaches, Washington administrators (and even faculty), the media, fans and donors, judges, police, and prosecutors all led to the Huskies' ability to pursue glory on the football field — regardless of what they were doing off it.

One contextual note: The University of Washington's current president, Mark Emmert — who will be taking a new job as president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association this November — has been at Washington since 2004; he was not there during the bulk of the events described in Scoreboard, Baby (Richard McCormick, now president of Rutgers University, led Washington from 1995 to 2002). However, the book is also sharply critical of the university's treatment of football under Emmert's tenure, and particularly of the salaries paid to the head and assistant football coaches — at a time when Western Washington University was eliminating its football program for financial reasons, and the president of Washington State University took a voluntary pay cut of $100,000.

The book also notes that, "At the UW the financial situation became so dire that the school shut its doors to new students wanting to start classes in the spring. But the university made an exception for athletes."

Inside Higher Ed interviewed Armstrong and Perry by e-mail to find out more about the book and what its story means for college football, at Washington and nationally.

Q: For those readers who might be unfamiliar with what happened, can you give a very brief outline of the book's contents?

KA: For the University of Washington, the 2000 season was the stuff of storybooks — a young, charismatic coach leading a team of overachievers to one stirring comeback victory after another. But a different story unfolded off the field.

One player was accused of rape. Another was under investigation for robbing and shooting a drug dealer. (Police had a wealth of evidence against him before the season even began, but since charges were slow in coming, he suited up and played.) Another player had an extensive history of beating his wife. Another, an extraordinarily gifted defensive back, struggled with mental illness.

Scoreboard, Baby follows these and other players through the season, showing readers the kinds of classes some student-athletes took to remain academically eligible (Sexuality in Scandinavia, Paper Science, Dinosaurs), the justifications provided for not pulling certain players’ scholarships (the UW believed one player’s domestic violence was cured by virtue of his wife moving away), and the failure of various institutions (prosecutors, police, judges, the media, the university) to hold players to account.

Q: What is the meaning of the book's title?

NP: Coach Rick Neuheisel once used the phrase "Scoreboard, baby" to rebut criticism of his team (Neuheisel was coaching Colorado at the time and would later coach the Huskies). What he was saying, in essence, was that you can talk all you want, but what really matters in the end are the number of points the team scores. We thought it spoke to a major theme of the book — the attitude that winning is what really matters, that winning trumps all other considerations.

Q: The articles that led to this book were published a number of years after the 2000 football season. How did you come to write them, and why?

KA: In 2007 I saw a newspaper column that mentioned a lawsuit against the UW and Jerramy Stevens, a former football player at the school who had been accused by a fellow student of rape. [Stevens denied the accusation, and the county prosecutor ultimately decided that there was not sufficient evidence to press criminal charges.The alleged victim later filed her own lawsuit against the university, the fraternity that held the party where the alleged rape occurred, and Stevens himself. The case led to a settlement in which the university was dismissed from the case, while the alleged victim received $300,000 from Stevens and the fraternity; Stevens did not, however, admit any guilt.]

The records about the Stevens case turned up all kinds of troubling elements (the UW’s scorched-earth litigation tactics, the tension between police and prosecutors over the way the criminal investigation had been handled), and the story built from there. Nick, the newspaper’s higher education reporter, joined the project; together we researched the backgrounds of Stevens and his UW teammates, focusing on the year that Stevens was accused of rape. (That season also happened to be the last year the UW had gone to the Rose Bowl.) As we dug deeper, we discovered that this was less a story about athletes finding trouble than about our community and all the ways we had looked away.

NP: The series — and Scoreboard, Baby for that matter — could only be written well after the 2000 season, because some of the incidents we detail didn't play out in the courts until years later. It was only in retrospect that we could fully account for the damage done through the actions of some of the players, and, more importantly, the blind eye turned by the community. That said, the book also details some of the shortcomings of regular sports coverage — which tends to focus on the game and season at hand, oftentimes at the expense of the bigger picture of sports culture and the sacrifices people are willing to make to win.

Q: When did you decide to turn the articles into a book, and why?

NP: At the time of writing the newspaper series, we knew we were leaving important material on the cutting room floor. Newspapers have strict limitations on space. There are also limitations on style — we always thought this story could benefit from a true narrative approach, in which scenes and background help build context for readers.

For me, one of the most rewarding parts of working on the book was discovering all sorts of new information through additional reporting. The woman who had accused Stevens of rape — Marie — did not agree to an interview before the series ran. But after the series ran, she felt more comfortable sitting down and talking. In fact, she wanted to be interviewed in the hopes that her story might act as a warning for other young women starting college. We were also able to interview Marie's close friends and family. Those stories and others help give Scoreboard, Baby an emotional resonance and account for the damage done.

I also spent some very enjoyable days in the special section of the University of Washington library. By sifting through original letters and documents, we were able to show how history has a way of repeating itself. One hundred years ago, the same debate over winning versus integrity was playing out. Back then, fans wouldn't send flaming e-mails to the university. But they would do the equivalent — writing formal letters in beautiful cursive that were scathing, nonetheless.

Q: When it comes to players behaving badly, you write, "Washington isn't an aberration. It is an example." In what ways did UW's 2000 football team epitomize college football?

NP: I approach the subject of college football as an outsider. A native of New Zealand, I grew up with cricket and rugby. In many ways, this served as an advantage when it came to working on Scoreboard, Baby because I was able to approach the subject of college football with fresh eyes. Yet even to an outsider, the headlines are impossible to ignore — whether they are coming from Oregon or USC or elsewhere in the country. Coaches and colleges are often quick to blame an individual or two while absolving themselves and the community from blame.

We made a deliberate decision to tell the story of one team over one season rather than try to account for all the misdeeds in U.S. college football. But I believe there are many towns and universities throughout the country where similar deep research would unearth similar problems and societal themes. As we write in the book, "Football is religion, and religion roams."

KA: As loose as things were at the UW, the UW still did not have a class in which student-athletes were asked, on their final exam, how many halves there are in a basketball game and how many points a three-point field goal is worth. That happened at the University of Georgia. Similar examples abound elsewhere. I have no doubt that if our approach — background the entire roster and follow each investigation through the system to see what happens — was applied to other Division I programs, the result would be a succession of deeply disturbing stories on the scale of Scoreboard, Baby.

Q: When Inside Higher Ed requested comment on your book, Norman Arkans, UW's associate vice president for media relations and communications, said that the university "...take[s] a different view these days: our expectations for civility are higher and our tolerance for misbehavior is much lower." Would you say that that seems to be the case?

KA: There’s anecdotal evidence to argue either way. But part of me is optimistic, and here’s why. When our newspaper series was published, the university, to its credit, did not react with a bunker mentality. From UW President Mark Emmert on down, university officials acknowledged that this was an important story worth telling and that there were lessons to be learned. The first step to addressing a problem is accepting there is one. Some people at the university have taken that first step. But that isn’t universal.

NP: After the Neuheisel era ended in shambles, the University of Washington did pay more attention to ethics. It hired both an athletic director and a coach who were noted for their emphasis on ethical behavior. Players faced more consistent discipline for misdeeds. The problem? The team wasn't winning games. So the UW replaced both. Only time will tell what happens under the current athletic director, Scott Woodward, and coach Steve Sarkisian.

In researching the book, we did notice a pattern both at the UW and in other programs. It goes like this: Ethics and discipline fall by the wayside in the desire to win. Shortcuts taken cause the program to fall apart. A new emphasis is placed on cleaning up the program. Boosters and fans get restless, demanding more wins. The pattern repeats.

The University of Washington's full statement about the book, sent by e-mail: “We all learned from the events of a decade ago that there was a collective failure, and no one — not the coaches, administrators, prosecutors, or the university — held those young men accountable for their actions. We take a different view these days: our expectations for civility are higher and our tolerance for misbehavior is much lower.”

Q: And what about issues unrelated to the "civility" or "misbehavior" of the football team — for example, academic standards, budget priorities, the health of student football players (which your book depicts as being of little or no concern to coaches and administrators), etc.? Has the University of Washington shown any improvement on these fronts?

KA: Budget priorities have become a sore point. The state of Washington’s finances have been in freefall — with too little money for education and social services – but that didn’t keep the UW from going to the state legislature and asking for $150 million in taxpayer money to renovate Husky Stadium. (The lawmakers said no.) And the UW continues to participate in the absurd arms race over coaching salaries, which now encompasses assistants’ salaries as well as the head coach’s.

The university is under enormous pressure to field a winning team. To help illustrate this, Nick and I obtained about a thousand e-mails from fans and boosters during one losing season. One wealthy booster offered $200,000 in scholarship funds if the university fired the coach and athletic director. Another booster wrote: “You have me mutinying against this crap, and I am your money. I don’t think I will be next year.” Some of the other emails have to be read to be believed. For the UW and other universities, these kinds of pressures are a constant.

Q: What are some of the biggest problems with college football today? How should they be addressed?

NP: The problems today in many ways reflect the problems of 100 years ago. It's the problem of marrying two seemingly unrelated pursuits — academic excellence and sporting prowess. It's the problem of trying to balance a community's insatiable desire for wins against considerations such as ethics and discipline and morality. It's a problem of deciding how to treat and compensate athletes who can act as economic engines for university sports programs. For many, change is not desirable so long as they are fielding a winning team. The system is working just fine the way it is when the community colludes and there are few challenges to the status quo.

Q: What are your thoughts on Mark Emmert being named head of the NCAA?

KA: Mark Emmert did an awful lot of good at the UW. He was widely respected on campus and in the community. ... After our newspaper series was published, Emmert talked of how disturbed he was by the stories. He said: “You can win, and you can win properly. … You do not have to give up your values to be competitive in sports.” If he can convince universities at large to take those words to heart, he could be a good fit for the NCAA.

NP: Again, it's going to be a question of wait and see. Emmert was widely admired during his tenure at Washington. He led a very successful fundraising campaign and was a consummate diplomat when it came to talking to various constituencies — whether it was lawmakers, donors or students. He did come under fire for his large salary and for joining two corporate boards, which further boosted his income. He does appear to have the respect of his peer presidents at other universities.

Change in college football, however, doesn't come easily.

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